Sports TV bubble may never burst

Last week I taped a podcast with ESPN’s super-talented sports writer Howard Bryant discussing the “TV sports bubble” and whether it would one day burst the way the housing market collapsed in 2007.

Bryant had written a provocative column detailing the fresh onslaught of television money that is inflating the value of sports franchises. The column never flatly stated it, but it begged a simple question: When would the in$anity end, if ever?

When I interviewed Bryant for my podcast, I was of the mindset the TV sports bubble would soon suffer the fate my home in Overland Park, Kansas, endured in the late 2000s. Since then, as I’ve given the issue more thought, I’m not so sure. What changed my thinking?

Tiger Woods and LeBron James.

Television’s biggest, baddest and most compelling stars work in professional sports. Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Clare Danes, Jon Hamm and Peter Dinklage — the Emmy-decorated stars of Breaking Bad, Homeland, Mad Men and Game of Thrones — all take a backseat to Tiger, LeBron, Kobe, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, Serena Williams and countless other sports actors.

It occurred to me during my discussion with Howard Bryant that today’s sports leagues are now direct competitors with television shows.

Bryant had made the observation that a Major League Baseball executive told him years ago that baseball began playing on Saturday nights because it realized it was competing for entertainment dollars with movie theaters, bowling alleys, nightclubs and restaurants. Ballparks and stadiums transformed into mini amusement parks, strip malls and high-end taverns so that men, women and children could all be thoroughly distracted when watching a game.

Well, now we’ve moved into the mancave/couch-gating era. A sports fan’s experience at home in front of his flat-screen, HD TV is arguably more important than his experience inside a ballpark, arena or stadium.

Multi-billion-dollar television contracts are driving sports far more than in-person attendance. That means Tiger Woods and LeBron James, the PGA Tour and the NBA are in a battle with American Idol, Breaking Bad, Homeland and Honey Boo Boo.

My money is on Tiger and LeBron and all the other athletes. They produce far superior TV drama. It’s about more than sports being DVR-proof. (A standard TV show is more enjoyable on DVR when you can fast-forward through the commercials/advertisements. A sporting event is best enjoyed as it happens, so you can text, talk and tweet with friends while it happens and while you don’t run the risk of having the ending spoiled.)

Beyond the DVR, sports are superior because real life is stranger and more compelling than fiction. Tiger and LeBron are Exhibit A and B. Name a television show that has had a better story arc than the ones that have played out for James and Woods since 2009.

James began the 2009-10 season as the unquestioned king of basketball and a threat to Jordan’s throne. In leading the Cavaliers to a league-best 61-21 record, James put together his second MVP season. He flamed out in a semifinals series against the Celtics, appearing to bicker with his coach and quit on his team. He doubled-down on controversy and further damaged his reputation in Cleveland and nationally with his tone-deaf, ESPN-manipulated exit from his home state. He took his talents to South Beach and promptly had his character further assassinated in Dallas by a lone gunman, Dirk Nowitzki.

Last year, in a strike-shortened season, James won his third MVP trophy and led the Heat to a championship. He quieted many of critics. This season, James has done what many thought was unthinkable just 24 months ago. He’s having a better season than Jordan ever had. Playing primarily on the perimeter, he’s shooting an uncanny 55 percent from the field while averaging eight rebounds and seven assists. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have blended their skills masterfully, perfectly. They’re the ultimate team and the ultimate winners. They’ve won 27 straight games and have a damn good chance of surpassing the ’71-72 Lakers’ record of 33 straight.

LeBron James is the $6 Million Man. He and his image have been rebuilt bigger and better.

Tiger’s story is just as remarkable over the same time frame. We all know what happened on Thanksgiving night 2009, and we all know its repercussions. Tiger’s story extends off the course. We had the parade of pillow-talking bimbos. Tiger went to sex therapy camp. He gave his bikini-model wife $110 million in a divorce settlement. His ex-swing coach wrote a gossipy book. He dumped his loyal caddie, and his caddie turned on him. Of course, Tiger’s golf game went into the tank. He lost his No. 1 ranking. He hasn’t won a major since 2008.

And now, seemingly out of nowhere, Tiger Woods appears to be all the way back. He has a new, famous blonde girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn. He’s kicking ass on the golf course. He’s ranked No. 1 again. He’s the overwhelming favorite to win the Masters.

Name a TV show that can compete with Tiger and LeBron. You can’t do it.

Our televisions are littered with scripted reality garbage. The ghosts of Vince McMahon and the WWE dominate our boob tubes. You remember the 1990s and early 2000s when The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and McMahon blended sports and soap-opera scripts and became a cultural force. The WWE turned Hollywood reality-TV crazy.

Well, the best reality TV shows are now called the NFL, the NBA, MLB, the PGA Tour, etc.

Starting in 1999 with The Sopranos, Hollywood countered with gritty, real-life dramas. The problem is, the producers and writers can’t handle their success and the shows almost always spin off the rails. The shows lack patience. They pretty much all eventually give into the Hollywood system that pressures and dictates that the best way to keep a wide audience is to dumb things down and offer quick resolution to complex problems.

I loved the first three seasons of Justified. It’s now just another 24 knockoff. Same goes for Homeland. Breaking Bad wanted to be great for two seasons and then just settled into being popular, profitable and the favorite of contrarians tired of hearing The Wire is the greatest of all time. The Sopranos had too many bad, pointless episodes. Dexter turned into a caricature of itself. Same as Nip/Tuck.

The Wire and The Shield made their points and quit. Good for them. I hope Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones follow David Simon’s and Shawn Ryan’s lead.

The beauty of sports is I don’t have to hope. Sports are a never-ending tale that always deliver a believable, dramatic and enriching ending. The sports TV bubble may never burst.